Br. Jim McIntosh, OFM

Br. Jim McIntosh, OFMI was born in Boston in 1954. At the age of 3, my family moved to California. At 6, we moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, and at 9, in 1963, we moved to McLean, Va., where my family has remained.

I don’t know when I first became aware of Franciscans. I think they staffed our parish when I lived in California, but am not sure. As I was finishing high school, I did not relish the idea of being drafted for the Vietnam War. My guidance counselor, a Franciscan friar in the Society of the Atonement, introduced me to his congregation.

I was very strongly struck by Zeffirelli’s 1972 movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” I now know that the movie was historically inaccurate, but the spirit of Franciscanism moved me deeply. I majored in theology for my undergraduate degree and even took an independent study course in St. Francis of Assisi!

After graduating from college in 1976, I did not enter the Society of the Atonement, but instead tried my hand “in the world.” I taught computer languages, worked as a systems programmer at a credit union and then worked for a couple of computer manufacturers. I was living a good life, enjoying a good salary, good apartments, etc.

After about eight years of this life, I decided that the Gospels called me to something more. Consequently, I sold everything that I had and took a volunteer job running a shelter for homeless men in inner city Washington, D.C.

A Franciscan friend, Fr. Joseph Nangle, OFM, heard what I had done and invited me to join a group talking about forming an intentional community. After a year of ongoing discussions, four of us started the Assisi Community in northwest Washington.

The Assisi Community is a diverse group of people — vowed and non-vowed, young and old, married and single — who have come together to live in community. It was during this time that I made my profession as a Secular Franciscan.

I very much liked my life in the Assisi Community, but also felt that I was not using my brain and my skills. Consequently, I took a job at American University as the manager of a group of systems programmers. During this time, I also met someone and fell in love and left the community to work on this relationship. When it ultimately failed, I returned to the community and reconsidered my future.

In 1995, the friar in charge of the Office of Justice and Peace for the Order of Friars Minor invited me to give a presentation to a meeting of friars in Seoul, Korea. The Internet was just coming into being, and he wanted a presentation on email and computer networking. I lived with the friars there for a month and was impressed with their life and spirit. He also invited me to Rome in 1996 to install a network in the JPIC Office of the friars’ General Curia. It was at this time that I started investigating a vocation to the First Order.

I entered the postulant program in 1997, started my novitiate in 1998, and took first vows in 1999 at the age of 45. I professed my solemn vows in 2003.

When, as a potential vocation, I looked at all the different works of Holy Name Province — the parishes, the universities, the direct service to the poor — the only ministry that I could not see myself doing was going to the missions. The Lord, though, had a different idea.

I studied Spanish in Bolivia in the summers of 1999 and 2000 and then went to work in Peru as a simply professed friar in 2001. I did various work during my four years there. The most rewarding was teaching basic computer skills to teenagers in a high school the friars founded for poor children in Lima.

After a brief stint working in the Province’s communications office in the United States, in 2006 I went to work in Bolivia. The Poor Clares — the cloistered Franciscan nuns — in Cochabamba, Bolivia, had decided to give their old novitiate building to the friars to be used for the poor. My first job in Bolivia was to convert a 100-year-old adobe building so it could be used to provide services to the most needy.

Although I had known nothing about construction when I started the project, I had to oversee the bricklayers, the carpenters, the plumbers, the electricians and so forth, as well as to raise funds for the construction. We knocked out walls to make room for dining rooms and installed kitchens.

After the construction was finished, I was tasked to run the center and coordinate the various groups working there, trying to maintain a Franciscan spirit. We ended up with space for a soup kitchen, a clinic for doctors, dentists and physiologists, and a special shelter for burned children.

A brief story sums up my Franciscan journey: When the children arrived at the shelter, they hid their faces, as they were terribly embarrassed about their disfiguring burns. They scurried in, heads held low with scarves hiding their faces. We met and decided that we would try our best to see these children as God sees them, as they saw themselves on the inside. A few months later, at a festival at the center, the children danced in native costumes they had sewed themselves to the beautiful Bolivian flute music. As I watched them, a tear came to my eye. I realized that we had succeeded — they were no longer embarrassed because they knew that in our eyes they were beautiful.

— This essay was included in the Summer 2011 issue of The Anthonian magazine, a quarterly publication of St. Anthony’s Guild. Br. Jim composed his Franciscan journey while living at St. Anthony Residence in Boston.